| Written by Sally Moore |
Attempting to stem the flow of migration from Central America President Trump introduced new rules in mid-July regarding who can claim asylum in the U.S. His innovative approach stated migrants who fail to apply for asylum in a country they pass through enroute to the U.S., will be deemed ineligible to apply here. AG William Barr noted the move “would deter economic migrants” from exploiting our asylum system.
Mexico balked, and predictably, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) launched an immediate legal challenge which will wind its way through the courts. These migrant caravans, however, are the newest wrinkle in ongoing asylum and illegal migration issues at our border. Other than “political unrest” or poverty, the mainstream media offers little reporting on the complex issues in Nicaragua, Honduras,Guatemala or El Salvador which spawned this dramatic migration.
Freelance journalist, John Rutledge spent many years writing for the Dallas based, Baptist Standard, also publishing the satirical Wittenburg Door. Maintaining solid El Salvador sources, he offered a thumbnail view of their politics. “In the 1980’s the civil war pitted Cuban backed FMLN against the U.S backed, right wing government.”
FMLN is the acronym for Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, one of two major parties operating in El Salvador. Taking their name from Marti, who led a 1932 uprising to reform El Salvador. The effort failed, leaving thousands of peasants and revolutionaries massacred. But, Marit’s name remained a unifying rallying cry in the 1980’s when five guerilla groups merged under Fidel Castro’s training to overthrow the government party.
Continuing his history lesson, Rutledge added, “During this time, leftist rebels and right-wing death squads committed terrible atrocities. The whole population probably has PTSD.”
Juana Espinosa’s (not her real name) family is a good representation of the turmoil. Juana grew up there and now lives and works in the U.S. Rutledge explained her story, “Her family had a split allegiance in El Salvador. Her dad with the government, and her mom sided with FMLN.”
Unfortunately, a domino effect accompanied the Salvadoran chaos, Rutledge noted, “Many who fled as refugees had kids who ended up in gangs in the U.S. When they were sent back, these (MS-13) gangs started to take over villages and neighborhoods in El Salvador, mostly in the south. They then came back to the U.S. as illegal immigrants. Juana’s village was free of gangs when we visited there (a few years ago). But, in many villages, the only way to escape the gang’s ire- is to leave.”
“About five years ago,” Rutledge continued, “The government forged a deal with the gangs that did lower the murder rate. That agreement soon fell apart. The only way, now, to get out of a gang is to make a convincing conversion to Evangelical Christianity. Then the gang will generally leave you alone.” He referenced a May 17, 2019 Washington Post article outlining a similar story in Brazil. “It is a terrible situation,” he said with a shake of his head. “Seemingly unsolvable without God’s intervention.”
In an effort to obtain “in-country” perspective on a different locale, Blessings Through Action (BTA) contacted missionary, Wayne MaGourik who, with wife, Elaine, opened a school in 2005 near Managua’s notorious garbage dump, La Chureca-fulfilling a dream to help children scavenging the odorous heaps for food and recyclable materials to sell. Their first Christian school, Oasis de Esperanza (Oasis of Hope) in Managua began with 80 K-2nd graders. Now, their ministry has expanded to another campus in Salinas Grande for a total of approximately 400 students whom they educate, feed and provide health care:
BTA: Americans hear few details about Central America. You have been there for 14 years. Can you share a bit about the political climate? What sort of government does Nicaragua have and what is behind the recent unrest?
WM: Central America, as a whole, is overlooked because not much changes. Now there’s a lot of focus because of border issues and El Salvador because of the MS-13 gangs that are prevalent.
To answer your question, the political climate right now in Nicaragua is tense, at best! Civil unrest began in April 2018 and has continued until the present. The majority of the populace has become weary of the current government, the empty promises, and ongoing corruption.
BTA: Can you give us a little history?
WM: Sure. When the civil war ended in 1989 and a “democratic” election was won by Violeta Chamorro there was a 10-year taste of democracy, but still an undercurrent of corruption because the Sandinista party controlled the National Assembly.
Though he lost in 1990, In 2006 Daniel Ortega again became President of Nicaragua. To say the election was legitimate would be a farce- even though former President Jimmy Carter was the U.S. “symbol of good faith,” and official ‘Observer” who declared it a legitimate and fair election.
Ortega formed the government and country to reflect his socialist philosophy. He quickly gained control of the military, National Police, Electoral Commission, and Supreme Court. Basically controlling the country. Nicaragua’s constitution limited the President to one term and he quickly had that changed, guaranteeing him the win in 2011 and 2016 and beyond.
BTA: So, Ortega is essentially a Socialist dictator and with only a brief interlude has been in power since the mid 1980’s…
WM: Well, he doesn’t call himself a dictator…But, dissatisfaction with his government has been brewing for at least the past 6-8 years. Ortega reacted by shutting down anti-government radio and television stations, trying to limit the print media, and monitoring communication, social media, etc. They gained control of the majority of the electrical and water companies and regulated rates. Uncontrolled spending and corruption at government levels continued with little if any public resistance. Occasional protests began with little result.
Support for Ortega’s government has waned with each passing day. The tipping point came in 2018 when they passed a law reducing social security benefits to the elderly, and raised social security taxes on everyone. The streets filled with protestors. At the time, mostly older people were protesting,the ones most affected. Videos surfaced showing National Police and paramilitary youth beating and kicking the elderly people with night sticks!
College students throughout the city soon rallied around the cause and became involved in the protests. Things got out of control, quickly. Gunfire, homemade mortars, snipers, rocks and most forms of weapons you can think of taking lives-some as young as 14 years old.
Protests swept the country. The National Police and the paramilitary presence increased -as did the death toll. Upwards of 500 were killed and thousands arrested and imprisoned. Countless people are missing and the chaos was rampant. I’ve heard many fled and sought asylum in Costa Rica… In a nutshell, the people have tired of the dictatorship of the current government. (In September 2018 political demonstrations were declared illegal.)
BTA: And the economic fallout?
WM: Not good. Daniel Ortega and the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, were cronies and Venezuela provided millions if not billions in financial aid to Nicaragua. Life was “pretty good” for a third world country! But, after Chavez’s death Venezuela began to have financial problems and the aid decreased significantly.
Tourism, Nicaragua’s main source of revenue, has basically flatlined. Hotels empty, businesses have closed- some destroyed during the fighting never reopened…and many have fled to Costa Rica seeking asylum and jobs. Commercial flights have decreased and in some cases ceased. Construction, residential and commercial, has stopped due to funding, and buildings remain empty.
BTA: So you feel that the Venezuelan economic collapse turned up the heat on the situation in Nicaragua?
WM: Yes, it began the downfall of Nicaragua’s current Sandinista government. The opposition and government have attempted a few meetings to negotiate the situation- but rarely have they lasted more than a day or two.
BTA: What’s the sticking point- or do you know?
WM: The opposition is demanding early democratic elections and the government will not budge from scheduled 2021 elections. The UN Human Rights Commission visited and their observations confirm human rights violations and false imprisonment. They were asked to leave the country.
BTA: What is the U.S. State Department telling Ex -Pats?
WM: A lot of missionaries and their families have left. The U.S. State Department isn’t telling people to leave but is “discouraging” travel, and many people who stay- like us- do their business during daylight hours and are locked in their homes by nightfall. National Police presence at every rotunda and pickup trucks filled with SWAT officers constantly patrol the city.
BTA: A Sheriff recently told me the U.S. ignored Central America for a long time and now we are paying for the neglect. Do you feel that’s true? Humanitarian needs aside- Why should America feel responsible for neighbors who operate under a different sort of government?
WG: I somewhat agree, but I wouldn’t call it neglect– more taken for granted. The U. S. realized its strategic value during the civil war of 1970-1979 when the Reagan administration supported the Contra rebels. Nicaragua is important because of its size. Unfortunately, Russia has also recognized this and has a larger presence in Central America.
Humanitarian and foreign aid is a vehicle to enable strengthening relations with third world countries, it’s commonplace. America has always been known for helping other nations. The U.S. may be a lot of things, but for the most part, it is the most compassionate country in the world.
BTA: Do you see a fix or stabilization anytime soon?
WM: Not until legitimate, democratic elections are held. In Nicaragua the younger/college generation recognize the Sandinista form of socialism has not worked and are demanding democratic elections and government. Until the current government allows democratic and legitimately observed elections nothing will change.
BTA: In December 2018 President Trump signed the NICA Act- a series of financial sanctions. Is that having an effect yet?
WM: Yes, The U.S. and EU have imposed sanctions against the government- but with little effect. Cuba and Russia still support Ortega and have picked up some of the slack, but the country is hemorrhaging economically.
Ortega has filled important positions with family members and trusted aides, so it would take a complete “house cleaning” to bring stability and improvement to Nicaragua.
BTA: Some in the States feel the “fix” is to throw open the USA doors and invite anyone in. Do you subscribe to that philosophy?
WM: I do not. There are laws that define how immigrants can enter the country and they should be enforced. I welcome immigrants who genuinely want to come to the U.S. to improve their lives and the lives of their families or those who want to escape oppression…but, only if they do it legally.
Given the existing issues with drug cartels, smuggling, gangs and international terrorist groups wanting to take advantage of an “open door” policy, people cannot be so naive to believe people are coming only for the hope of a better life.
BTA: How has the upheaval affected your ministry – and you and Elaine personally?
WM: Thank God, the ministry- our school- has not been affected by the situation in Nicaragua. Because our school is located in THE worst neighborhood in Managua, it holds no strategic value to the government. Our students are for the most part, apolitical. Although their parents are Sandinista. Our school stays apolitical. We make it clear we are a Christian school and have no political agenda. We are listed as a “private” school. As such, we don’t have to conform to the Ministry of Education’s curriculum which includes socialist doctrine.
Both students and parents know politics have no place in our school. The Ministry of Education is pleased with every facet of the school’s operation.
BTA: And personally?
WM: Personally? We did leave the country during the worst part of the unrest, mainly because we were tired of going to bed with the sound of gunfire in the background. (I served two tours in Viet Nam, I don’t care to be around gunfire any more!)–and it was very distressing for Elaine. While we were in the U.S., I had some health issues that extended our stay, but thanks to technology, I was able to Facetime and talk via internet with the staff and students there two or three times a week.
We returned to Nicaragua once the worst of the trouble blew over. We’ve become much more cautious in our daily activities and are looking for a safer place to live. Even with enhanced security at the gate, our back fence is pock marked with bullet holes– shell casings in our backyard. We aren’t nearly as relaxed driving around town. Basically, we just go between school and home, do our shopping and spend the evenings in our condominium. The presence of National Police and SWAT teams remind us one little spark can reignite another round of protests and violence. However, our faith and calling remain unchanged.
BTA: The needs of the people you serve near the dump don’t stop with political unrest. What’s the status?
WM: Most still just strive to survive from one day to the next. I’m sure there are parents who are somewhat politically active, but they are few. I don’t know of any of our students who participate in protests. Most still view the school as a safe place where they are loved, encouraged, affirmed, fed, educated and exposed to Jesus. As for the populace, their concern is more survival than political.
BTA: What can people do to help- if they feel led to do so?
WM: Prayer is always our first request. As with all missionaries, we are always mindful of finances. Since the unrest began the costs of operating the school (food, milk, utilities) have increased significantly and it’s stretched our budget to the maximum, no room for surprises. The taxes we pay as NGO (non-profit) have increased because the government is looking for money wherever they can find it. But, I can say that our students have yet to miss a meal or our teachers have yet to miss a paycheck. There are times when we wonder if we’ll have enough, but God remains faithful.
BTA: What are your plans going forward?
WM: God called us to plant a Christian school among the poorest of the poor. Until He leads us otherwise, this is what we will continue to do. We don’t feel in danger. We love what we are doing and it’s bearing good fruit. Our students and parents love and support the school and for the most part, us. We actually feel safer inside the walls of our school than the walls of our condominium. Yes, we are more aware of the risk, but our resolve remains unchanged. Until the Embassy mandates an evacuation, we will continue to serve God and the people of Nicaragua and particularly, Oasis de Esperanza.